I finished this book aaaages ago and started it even earlier (in mid-December, in fact) but have only now had time to review it. I guess that says a lot about both it and me. While I think the cover is the best Mad Norwegian Press have ever done (better than the Chicks Dig Time Lords cover), the book was not quite what I was expecting. It consisted mostly of personal revelations from female comics aficionados and bloggers. This is fine, but many seemed to be playing the same tune on a well-trodden player-piano. What I had anticipated were more interviews with female writers and artists (of which there were certainly some, and to which I paid attention). I thought perhaps there might be a piece on lettering from a female letterer or something like that. Definitely the semi-pro fan blogger was the norm, and perhaps that was the targeted audience as well.
I’ve explained before how I personally got into comics (though to be fair I was drawing them about six months before The Dark Knight because Paul Castle of Shooty Dog Thing gave me the confidence and the arena in which to try). My rather brief association might suggest that I’m just a poseur. I’d like to think not, though many of the debates to which fans subscribe with awesome ferocity, I’m just not into (Jean Grey vs. Emma Frost? Eh). I do favor DC over Marvel generally, and I am very much Batman over anyone else. Tammy Garrison, a writer and blogger, pretty much sums up why: “There are a variety of reasons I identify with Batman. Not because he is dreamy or rich or anything like that. But because he’s awesome, and he just . . . feels right” (62). Also because “how much egg arre you going to have on your face when Superman gets taken over by alien spores and destroys half of the planet Earth before you can mount any sort of counterattack?” (64) This is why Batman remains fundmanetally the same in Red Son and Superman becomes the tyrant.
Gail Simone (Wonder Woman, Birds of Prey) was one of the names I expected to see, actually having read some of her stuff in print via DC. Her comments were interesting and insightful:
DC had its shameful parade of oddly unfemale women, but in particular, those Marvel comics almost seemed to actively promote the message that women were all venal, selfish, boy-crazy, overly emotional, and not particularly bright (13)
The mantra that we are told (and as a fan, I feel this is accurate though changing, and had to have it pointed out to me how entrenched this attitude really was) Simone sums up succinctly: “a female comics fan was a chimera” (13).
Furthermore, discounting my rather weightless assessments of female comics fans (and not even touching my thoughts on women in the industry), Simone’s description of the general indifferent taboo of even talking about the subject of female comics fans mirrors the experience I have had in trying to bring attention or discussion or even acknowledgment to females in Doctor Who fanzines:
I had male friends online with an executive at one of the big two companies and finally I asked him flat out what percentage of the readership was female—he had no idea. No one knew, he said. What he didn’t add as the obvious follow up (15)
No one cared.
Kelly Thompson (writer, blogger, podcaster) sums up a dichotomy that I myself have to address all the time: “The feminist and the comics lover in me soon started coming to blows.” Amanda Conmer (artist for Marvel, DC, Vampirella) has elaborated on this. “The problem is that sometimes you can just tell—I don’t know how you can tell, but you can—that the women are made to dress sexy only for the jerk-off factor” in comics (usually traditional superhero) art (39). Harley Quinn is perhaps a good crystallization of this problem, although on second thought perhaps not, given the character’s emotional baggage the morality question she brings in addition to ruptures between feminism and art. Maybe Catwoman is a better focal point. I like when she is drawn in a cool way, in a pin-up way, even (usually) in a sexy way. In real life, wearing her leather catsuit would be hot and uncomfortable and, it seems to me, not even Selina Kyle could maintain that perfect body that unforgiving suit would otherwise expose—100% of the time. What if she went on a chocolate binge? Surely that would show. But I think it can be allowed, because in some ways she is a heroine to look up to, to present as an ideal. I’d like to be as sexy as Anne Hathaway but I never could be, nor would I want to fit into that rib-breaking ensemble with the heels, even if it was just for a few months filming. But Catwoman porn for the sake of porn—and as Conmer suggests, there does seem to be some way you can “just tell”—feels degrading and pointless. Batman can be a huge slab of rippling muscles—though like many I prefer a slimmed-down, more real-world-attainable version—representing our ideal of a super-strong, super-fast, disciplined, but ultimately human superhero—but you are very unlikely to see gratuitously sexy shots of either Batman or Bruce Wayne. In general, I am fine with that—I like to see a handsomely-drawn Bruce Wayne, or a powerfully-muscled Batman. I think a gratuitously porn-like Batman would be unsettling. But the fact is, we are much, much less likely to see that than a gratuitously porn-like Catwoman (or Batgirl or . . . pretty much name any female superhero or villainess).
I was surprised at some of the more unusual aspects of the comics business from which we got to hear female voices, including Rachel Edidin, an editor at Dark Horse. She really made editing seem as exciting as writing or drawing: “I am a midwife. I will hold your hand as you labor to produce your life’s work, tell you when to push and when to catch your breath” (48). (She had a few more metaphors but that was the most arresting.)
There is a lot of Batwoman love in this volume. Fortunately, what is said often ties up beautifully with the links I think John Cawelti has forged in his many volumes about genre fiction. Writer Caroline Pruett says of Batwoman’s storylines, “At work here are familiar tropes from many kinds of fiction: Lying about your identity is bad because it’s inauthentic (a golden rule of romance fiction); lying about the past is bad, because deception weaves a tangled web and corruption breeds more corruption (a golden rule of mystery and noir)” (75). Sue D (of blog DC Women Kicking Ass) further traces the ties in comics with other genre fiction by bringing that long-reviled genre, the soap (funny how comics and soaps were/are reviled for similar reasons but from entirely different sides of the spectrum): “Comics and soap operas are incredibly similar. Both offer stories that never end” (Matt Hills’ hyperdiegenetic universes; I will never tire of name-dropping that term). Her assertion that “their stories and characters reflected white, middle-class Midwestern values” is a fascinating one I would like to see examined more thoroughly (123). Delia Sherman goes after Frederick Wertham’s crackpot ideas, and a comics writer I respect a lot, Greg Rucka, gets a highly informative interview. “I finished my first story with her [Renée Montoya] knowing that at some point down the road, eventually Two-Face would say to her, ‘I love you,’ and she would be like, ‘Good luck with that!’” given that Renée Montoya in Gotham Central emerges as a strong and interesting lesbian cop (131).
Though the writing of these enthusiasts and professionals have opened many interesting doors, I’m afraid I still believe the traditional comics field will be an uphill struggle for a woman writer or artist. Colleen Doran (multi-talented illustrator, artist, and writer) observes,
. . . a little gig here and there, the fun of having the pros you like and respect and include you in the comics universe by giving you a connection to the focus of your girly crush . . . and then the reality that it was an industry that didn’t really like or respect girls very much, that deeply resented our presence to the extent that store owners felt comfortable enough telling us our business wasn’t welcome, and respected male pros acted like oru own purpose in the industry was as potential girlfriend material (204).
I hope this is changing. I pray it is changing.
Chicks Dig Comics is an enjoyable read if a bit repetitive; much as I love Lloyd Rose, one does see a rather surprising crossover of writers from Chicks Dig Time Lords. I understand that, as a North American press, the book is going to focus on North American experiences, but I would have been really interested to have read the experiences of a British or French female comics fan.